Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Burning Issue...

A completed burner for making biochar
It may just be the next best thing since sliced bread.


Or, if you like something more familiar… charcoal.

It’s what you get when you partially burn wood or other organic matter. Black, crumbly charcoal.

When I dumped the ash buckets today, I sifted and separated the charcoal from the ash with a screen I use for compost. That resulted in a bucket full of charcoal… or, biochar, it sounds more sophisticated.

A couple of years ago, I’d read about biochar being a good soil amendment and was intrigued, but not intrigued enough to actually try making any and using it. About three weeks ago I attended a workshop about biochar, which included construction of a burner to more efficiently make it. That’s when I was really sold on it.

Using a half-inch bit, drill a series of holes in the bottome of the barrel,
approximately 2 inches apart, with a cluster of holes at the center to
facilitate air flow in the center of the burning materials.
This char does not possess any special nutrients, but is porous and full of nooks and crannies that make good homes for all those beneficial fungi and other microorganisms so essential to soil health and plant nutrition. Also, the chemical structure of char (largely carbon) causes it to attract various ions of common plant nutrients, thus retaining soil nutrients long term when they might otherwise escape. The char also retains moisture, making plants growing in it more drought tolerant. And finally, it improves the structure of soil, turning clay into friable earth and sand into fertile fields.

And if that weren’t enough, biochar will save the world.

Cut a hole in the lid into which the stove pipe will fit tightly.
With tin snips, make tabs around the bottom of one lenght of
Or, at least, it might help reduce the release of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, by keeping lots of carbon in the soil. If I understand the science correctly, when plants decay or are fully burned down to ash, pretty much all of the carbon in them is oxidized – that is, it links up with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. By partially burning this matter, you prevent up to half of the carbon from being released into the atmosphere. Mixing it with soil sequesters the carbon, locks it up in the soil for centuries. If enough people do this, the theory goes, we can not only halt the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but start decreasing it, thus preventing (or at least slowing) warming of the earth’s atmosphere.
...then slip the pipe into the lid and bend back the tabs so the pipe
is secured to the lid. The other two lengths will be added only
when you do a burn.

So, by mixing this char in my soil I can not only get healthier and more nutritious vegetables and fruits, but also save the world from global warming.


All of this theory is intriguing enough, but at the workshop, we heard first hand reports of its miraculous nature from people who have used it.

You can make biochar in a trench in the garden, as demonstrated in this article that appeared in Mother Earth News a few years ago. Or you can make it more efficiently by creating a burner from a 30- (or 50-) gallon steel barrel with a tight-fitting lid, three lengths of 8-inch stove pipe, some ceramic fiber insulation (fiberglass will deteriorate rapidly with the high heat of burning the char), chicken wire, a pair of tin snips and a half-inch drill bit for use on metal.
Wrap the ceramic fiber insulation around the barrel and
secure it with chicken wire.
The burner must be set up on bricks, so that air will flow from the bottom and up through the wood chips or weedy materials packed not too tightly into the barrel. Light the top of the materials with charcoal fluid or some kind of tinder, such as dry grass or newspaper. Put the lid on top and let it burn. In 60 to 90 minutes, the fire will have reached the bottom. You must then extinguish it immediately, before the fire starts back up and burns the charcoal to ash.

Two rows of holes at the lower end of the bottom length of
pipe create a "second burn," which creates a smoke-free burn.
We plan to make one of these, but I am not waiting for that to happen before I get some char. When we clean the stove, especially before it is completely burned out, a lot of chunks are in the ash. They are still burning embers, mostly, but putting all that ash and coals in a metal bucket with a tight lit prevents all of it from burning up (other stuff in the wood burns before the carbon does, then the carbon burns, leaving only ash). I use my compost screen to separate the char and the ash. Just crunch up the charcoal and spread it on the garden.

As a caveat, I read a recent article saying that the European Union has decided that biochar wil not save the world, and that it should not bear the exotic name biochar, but simply be called "plant charcoal." Whatever. The article did not cite particular studies or info as to why they made this decision. However, the testimonials I heard on that chilly Sunday afternoon were enough to convince me that at least it will help my garden grow.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Red Cedars

A path through mature red cedars.
The cedar tree massacre has begun.

No, we are not taking down any of the giant red cedars. I love these trees and red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) in general. Standing inside a grove of red cedars is intensely comforting. I feel protected and safe. It is particularly lovely when snow is on the ground.

Snow covered red cedars
The fragrance of these trees takes me back to my childhood. Our Christmas trees were always red cedars from one of the pastures. The best part of having a tree, in my opinion, was always the family trip out to the pasture to select and cut the tree. We kids would ride to the pasture in the back of the pickup (I know, dangerous, but fun) bundled in heavy coats and blankets. We would wander the pasture for an hour or more, until the "perfect" tree was found and loaded. Then we'd ride home in the back of the pickup with the tree.

This tradition continued into our adulthoods, with us taking our own children along. We even continued after our children were grown, until most of us kids just didn't bring home trees anymore. Also, I moved a little further away, making the trek more combersome at a really busy time of year.

Still, I love those trees (not true cedars, but actually a juniper species). I love their fragrance and presence and beauty.

However, they are extremely invasive. They also make the soil more alkaline (which Kansas soils hardly need) and can crowd out most other plants. So, unless I want a field of cedars and a few other scraggly trees, some cutting back is in order.

There is an area somewhere between a quarter and half acre that I want to maintain as prairie on our hilltop, but it has become rife with little cedars. Recently, I began walking through the meadow with loppers, pruning shears and a pruning saw to cut out little cedars anywhere from a few inches tall to 6 feet tall. As I do this task, I do it with love for the cedars and the prairie. Prairie fires and herds of bison used to keep down the cedar population, but no more.

I've had to slow down on this task because my wrist started to feel tweaky. Knowing from painful experience how ignoring a little pain in order to push through a chore can turn into weeks of not being able to do anything, I've given it a rest.

Red cedars are incredibly hardy trees, thriving in tough soils, in dry conditions and providing food and shelter for wildlife. These trees come in male and female. Female trees bear small, blue "berries," which are actually cones, that many birds eat (which is why they get spread so widely). The male trees get golden brown "flowers" or cones or whatever they are at the tips of their branches that produce pollen. That is why perfectly healthy trees sometime look rather brown in the spring. I have seen clouds of pollen poof from the branches when birds land and move about.

Cedar "berries"

This year, the berries were more intensely blue than usual, and very abundant on some trees. I believe that the drought created the intense color, by condensing the sugars and pigments. I have enjoyed nibbling on these berries from time to time. They taste like they smell. The flavor is like an extremely intense rosemary, with a bit of bitterness and an aftermath of sweetness.

Berries of a different species of juniper are used medicinally, and the traits can be found somewhat in this species, as well. The berries treat various complaints, including, but not limited to, urinary tract infections and fighting off the herpes virus. Juniper berries are also used to flavor various cuisines (such as German sauerkraut) and a number of liquers and liquors. Juniper berry is the prominent flavor of gin.

Not one to waste abundance when I see it, I picked a good amount of these berries (pick in late autumn when ripe) to dry for future use. Whether I will actually use them remains to be seen. Maybe I will make some German sauerkraut with next spring's cabbage. In the meantime, I am slowly restoring the little prairie.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Between the Lines

Tonight I will slip into a bed smelling of sunshine and fresh air.

Nothing is better than freshly laundered sheets dried outdoors.

When we moved to this house, it did not truly feel like home until we had erected a clothesline. Until that time, each load of laundry filled me with a yearning for a clothesline... especially when I washed the bed sheets.

The fragrance of line-dried sheets is one I remember from childhood. While I did not quite appreciate the roughness of line-dried bath towels, I loved the smell of freshly washed, line dried sheets. Most of our clothes were dried on the clothesline for much of my younger years.

Perhaps that is why I have almost always made sure I had a clothesline wherever I lived, even if I had to string the line between two conveniently spaced trees. That and the fact that I hated spending money and time waiting for clothes dryers at the laundromat.

If my love for the clothesline and the sense of "home" it gives me comes from my childhood memories, then most of today's children won't know that special comfort of settling between freshly washed and line dried sheets. They won't know the simple pleasure of hanging clothes on the line.

Today, many homeowner's associations don't allow backyard clotheslines because they are not aesthetically pleasing. But I find nothing more aesthetically pleasing than clothes hanging on the line.

It is a simple pleasure. I love hanging clothes on the line, even on chilled days like today, when the breeze had a little bite to it. Nothing pleases me more than watching the sheets and towels flap in the breeze... feeling the coolness, or heat of the dried clothes as I take them off the line... bringing in a basketful of sun- and wind-dried things.

A simple pleasure. Like running and playing hide and seek among the trees. Climbing a stack of straw bales. Dress-up parades through the garden. Picking berries and eating snap peas fresh off the vine.

Simple pleasures are better than anything.

Pass it on.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sparrow Grass

Frost-covered asparagus on an autumn morning.

"Faster than cooking asparagus."
That phrased was coined about 2,000 years ago by Roman Emporer Augustus to describe quick action. Of course, originally it would have been in Latin.
In those days, asparagus was something on the wealthy could afford to serve, and they valued it highly. Those ancient Roman emporers retained entire fleets of ships simply to transport this delicacy.

These days, asparagus can be on anyone's table, although a pound of organically grown asparagus will set you back five or six bucks. If you have a little garden space that you can devote to a perennial crop, however, you can have your own asparagus for little effort.

Asparagus remains a highly favored delicacy, although it fits in almost anyone's budget. Asparagus season is a mere two months plus two weeks long, and the fresh stuff is highly superior in flavor to canned or frozen asparagus. In Europe, asparagus season is eagerly awaited and celebrated with asparagus festivals (called "spargelfests" in Germany). Some places in the U.S. also have such festivals.

My single asparagus bed, containing 20-plus plants, provides more than enough spears to satisfy any craving the two people in this household may have, plus some to give away. In spite of the much warmer than normal and dry spring, the asparagus patch produced probably as much as it did the previous year.

The asparagus in our garden is "Purple Passion," which produces rich red-purple spears. These spears frequently are about an inch in diameter, and sometimes look rather intimidating. When my sister asked how I got my asparagus so big, I would just shrug. All I do is give it compost or horse manure in the fall after I cut it down, then mulch.

Now I learn that purple varieties of asparagus naturally produce large spears. Which is kind of disappointing -- to learn that I don't actually have a magic touch with it. Purple varieties also tend to be sweeter and have less fiber than green varieties.

Often, those giant spears will curl and deform, creating rather monstrous looking things. The curling and bending is due to mechanical damage -- either you nicked it a bit when using a tool to weed, or some buggy critter chewed on one side a little. The curve goes toward the side where the damage is.

Some people complain that eating asparagus makes their urine smell bad. At one time, it was argued that people differed in the way their bodies processed asparagus, so that some had smelly urine, while others did not. Studies have shown that this is not the case. Pretty much everybody excretes those smelly compounds. It is simply that the large majority of us do not possess the gene that allows us to smell it.

Smell or no smell, asparagus is highly nutritious, and a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including folate, and was once considered a medicinal herb.

Asparagus has been around a long time. Ancient Egyptian friezes thousands of years old show people making offerings of asparagus.

However you like it, lightly steamed, roasted for a brief period, sauteed or in soups, asparagus is good for you, and an easy perennial vegetable.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Oh, Deer

Winter is closing in.

Today and Saturday will be quite lovely, late spring-like days. Tonight's low is set at 60.
Sunday's high is in the mid-50s. Monday will make it into the low 40s.

On Saturday I will pull the inner row cover over the lettuce and broccoli. On Sunday, I will add some extra protection by throwing old sheets over the low tunnels housing the lettuce. Lows will be in the mid-20s for several days this coming week. Now comes the time when keeping things not just alive, but in good condition requires awareness of the weather. I should probably give serious consideration to replacing the row cover on the low tunnels with plastic. Easier yet, just throw the plastic over the row cover.

Lots of tender lettuce has yet to be harvested. This past week, we've eaten some very fine broccoli, fresh from the garden. I hope the plants will produce side shoots. The cabbages, etc. seem a bit slow this year. And I am wondering if I will get cabbage or cauliflower at all. The brussels sprouts are very close.

Next year, I might start some of the cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower a couple of weeks earlier, to ensure that they head out before it gets too cold. Sept. 1 plantings worked just fine for a couple of years. This year, I'm beginning to wonder.

Oh yes, here are some rather blurry photos of some of the deer who tramp through our woods and munch on things in my garden. The photos are blurry because the camera wanted to focus on the trees in front of the deer and I was in too much of a hurry to think about setting it on manual focus. They rarely show themselves when I can quickly get the camera, or when there is enough light to get a good shot. Not that these are good shots, but they are something.

Even though the deer munch my strawberry leaves, chew down the cover crops and rend the elderberry shrubs down below, they are beautiful creatures and I enjoy their presence.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hello Again!

The sumac has lost its leaves since this photo, but I had to post it anyway.
The Wheel keeps turning.

I just checked the seven-day forecast. After a couple of days with highs in the 70s (and one night with a low of 60!) the weekend calls for a good chance of rain and (get this) snow.

Yeah. Snow.

It is November.

The other day I said that I wouldn't complain at all about snow this winter.
Because we need the moisture.

I am not sure that I am quite ready for snow yet, though.

Can't stop it, though.

One of the things I have enjoyed doing on some of these chilly mornings is making jam.

Two or three weeks ago I finally released the bell peppers to go where all good little plants go, eventually. The compost heap. After I picked all of the peppers, that is.

That meant I had peppers for making hot pepper jelly, which is mostly bell peppers, with just a few hot ones thrown in according to the heat level that you'd like. Last year's batch (which we still have several jars of) came out super hot. This year's batch, not so hot. So we'll just open one of each and mix them. Poifect!

I've also pulled jars of elderberries out of the freezer for elderberry jam. When it is all done, I will have more than I made last year, but not as much more as I thought I might have.

Anyway, here are my very own recipes. I use Pomona's pectin because it is an all natural pectin and I can adjust it for any size batch that I want. While most packaged pectins say not to make double batches (I've tried, they frequently don't gel properly) I have had no trouble with double batches using Pomona's. While a box of Pomona's is more expensive than the others, you don't use the whole package for a single batch. I can get three or so batches out of one package, depending on what I am making, as some types of jellies and jams use different amounts of pectin.

Naked trees in the golden light of sunset.
You also can make your own pectin by boiling down green apples... That's all I know about that, and I know that much only because one of my neighbors told me that she did it.

Ok. On to the recipes.

Pepper Jelly
3 ½ cups pepper puree (bells and hot peppers)*
2 cups cider vinegar
½ cup lemon juice
1 ½ to 2 cups honey (or 2 ¾ cups sugar)
5 teaspoons calcium water
4 teaspoons pectin powder

Mix pepper puree, vinegar, lemon juice and calcium water in a large saucepan. Bring to boil. Blend pectin in with honey or sugar. When liquid is boiling, add honey (sugar)/pectin mix and stir vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes to dissolve pectin. Bring to boil, then remove from heat. Fill hot, sterile jars and cap tightly. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes (half pints) or 15 minutes (pints). Makes 3 pints or 7 half pints.
*From 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds of whole bell peppers, green or colored. I used two jalapenos with seeds removed, but did not remove pith or ribs, but that was not hot enough. I will try 3 or more jalapenos next time. Other hot peppers can be used, according to availability and your taste.

Elderberry Jam
4 cups processed elderberries*
1/3 cup cider vinegar or ¼ cup lemon juice
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of clove
4 teaspoons calcium water
1 cup honey
3 teaspoons pectin powder
Mix elderberries (measured after processing out seeds), vinegar or lemon juice, seasonings and calcium water in large saucepan. Bring to boil. Blend pectin with honey. Once liquid is boiling, add honey/pectin blend and stir vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes to dissolve pectin. Bring to boil and remove from heat. Fill hot, sterile jars and process in boiling water bath, 10 minutes for half pints, 15 minutes for pints. Makes 5 half pints.
*I have found that processing out the seeds, with a hand cranked food mill, is easiest when you freeze the berries, then thaw and process. I use to cook the berries, cool and then process, but that takes more time. And I think that the double cooking (since you need to heat the juice again before canning) destroys some of the flavor and nutrients. Both cooking and freezing break down the berries and makes them easier to process.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

To Fry or Not to Fry

“Give me all you can spare.”
I giggled insanely when I read that e-mail.
All I can spare? Does she even realize?

The first weekend of October brought our first freeze -- not just a frost, a freeze, a hard one. The tomatoes were not producing much of anything but green tomatoes, so I did not try to save them. However, I did pick about half a bushel of green tomatoes. Someone could use them. I knew she had been delighted to receive green tomatoes last year to make picalilli. I knew she wouldn't use half a bushel of them, but I had them delivered to her anyway.
Half of them were returned to me.

Fortunately, someone said he would use a few in spaghetti sauce – he likes the tartness. Someone else said she wanted to try some fried ones. She took a couple.
“What about salsa verde?” I asked before she could escape.
“Can you make it with green tomatoes?”
“You can try.”
So I gave her a few more. The next day I found a recipe online for salsa verde made with green tomatoes, and sent her the link.

The rest of the green tomatoes, which were few, went into the compost heap. I've still got pickled green tomatoes I made last year.
Well, ok, I salvaged a couple and had them with lunch. I sauteed some vegetables with a nice curry seasoning and added the green tomatoes and a ripe one. Tasty.

This Web site offered 25 green tomato recipes, including the salsa verde recipe. Here is another site with recipes and this one has interesting variations. And yet one more. They start looking alike after a while, mostly battered and fried, or some sort of pickle or relish. Of course you have to have green tomato pie, as well.

This is the recipe I created last year to make pickled green tomatoes.

My Pickled Green Tomatoes
3 cups organic apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon pickling salt
4-5 cinnamon stick
10-15 whole cloves
8-10 whole cardamom pods
15 cups, more or less, green tomatoes, sliced, quartered, chunked, however you like

Combine vinegar, salt, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom in a large saucepot. Heat to boiling and let cook for a few minutes. Remove spices and put 1 cinnamon stick, 2-3 whole cloves and 2 cardamom pods in each jar. Add tomatoes to vinegar and simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Quickly pack hot, sterile pint jars with tomatoes, then fill with vinegar to ½ inch from the top, making sure liquid covers all the tomatoes. Clean rims and cap each jar. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Makes 4 to 5 pints.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Peck of Peppers, more or less

The peppers are done, for the most part. The flower gardens look rather bare. The tomatoes stand withered and browned by frost.

It is the middle of October and we have already experienced two freezes. Not just frosts, when the temperature might actually remain above the freezing point, but freezes. And the thermometer did not simply dip down to the freezing point, but actually fell into the 20s (Fahrenheit). Below 28 degrees is considered a "hard" freeze. Both of the freezes fell hard.

Sigh. I kind of thought that after this hellish summer we would get a late first freeze. Instead, it comes early and hard.

I went into the attic above the garage and brought down the sheets and blankets I use to protect things from frosty temps. The peppers, watermelons, one hill of cantaloupe and half of the pole beans got covered. I'd decided to let the tomatoes go. Draping sheets over pole beans is a bit more difficult than just throwing them over shorter plants, but I managed.
I should have saved myself the trouble. The beans bit the dust during the first freeze, in spite of being covered. Twenty-eight degrees F. was just too much. The peppers looked pretty singed, but alive. Both of the melons were covered with heavy blankets, not just sheets, so they fared a bit better, but still had some singed leaves.

Then I cut a few flowers, very few since many of them got burned a little by a near-freeze frost the day before.

After that night the forecast looked safe. No frosty weather in the outlook. I ignored the dead things in the garden (although my energetic husband spent an afternoon tidying up while I was in town for a meeting). I had a five-day camping trip at a music festival to plan for. Then two days before we were to leave, less than a week after the first freeze, the forecast called for another near-freeze -- 33 degrees, too close for comfort -- on the night before we left. So I covered the peppers and melons again. When I got up the next morning, the thermometer said 26.
Fortunately, we left late enough that it was safe to pull the covers off of everything. Things had survived, sort of. But we had a music festival to go to. The two brightly colored zinnias I had salvaged before that first freeze were still bright and fresh, with their accompaniment of lavender mint, so they graced our camp table at the festival.

Today, I cut up the pepper plants and added them to the compost heap. The Thai chilis, the King of the North red bell pepper and most of the Orange bells. Four of the orange bells looked healthy enough to support the large green peppers they bore, so I decided to let them ripen. Now I have a large basket full of green bell peppers and a two or three dozen bells with at least a little color on them. I also picked a few small, ripe watermelons.

The Kansas cantaloupe has a few smallish melons ripening on the vine. I cover the near-ripe ones with plastic buckets weighted with rocks to thwart melon thieves. Last night I went out the back door and spied a melon-thieving oppossum waddling away.

The summer garden is winding down. Yet bounty is to be had. Today I pulled some large red radishes. We are feasting on kale and lettuce and waiting hopefully for cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts. With care, many of these things will last well into winter.

It seems odd to be suddenly in the midst of autumn.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Autumn Arrives

White ash -- a hardwood favored for baseball bats.

The Summer that I Thought Would Never End is over.
We celebrated the Autumn Equinox last weekend, so it is officially Fall.

But that is not what put an end to the Summer that I Thought Would Not...
For the past month or so, the weather has been much cooler. Not just cooler, but downright chilly at times. Now I wait until late in the morning to head to the garden -- so that it will have warmed up a bit.

Virginia creeper climbs a walnut tree.
Rain remains scarce, but the cooler temperatures mean that plants transpire (lose water) much less than they do when it is hot.

The woods surrounding me are rife with color. Red flames climb many of the trees... red flames that are Virginia Creeper, mostly. I am glad that only a few of the vines climbing the trees are poison ivy. However, Poison Ivy burns lower, at the edges of the woods. Both are a wonderfully rich scarlet.

The beautiful orange-yellow of what I have now identified as a white ash tree glows among the yellowing green of the elms and walnuts. As the leaves begin to fall from these trees later in the season, the oaks and sycamores and others will put out their autumn colors.

Poison ivy in its autumn glory.
The hours around sunset are gloriously beautiful. I have made a point these last few days to wander out at about that time (6:30 or so), as the sun sinks lower and the golden hue to the light enhances the glorious color in the woods.

With the cooler temps, and the little bits of rain we've had, the garden has rebounded. The cantaloupes, which I thought were about done when August hit, now have little melons. The Kansas variety has produced a number of ripe ones. They are small, but....

Leaves and berries of Bristly Greenbrier in the woods.
The cantaloupes disappointed me this summer. I don't know what it was, but the flavor just wasn't what I had come to expect. So I did not expect much from these little late ones.
I cut open the first one to ripen and caught a whiff of a delicate fragrance.

Then I ate one and an oh-my-God sweet deliciousness filled my mouth and forced me to consume several more pieces. What a wonderful treat at the end of the summer that I feared would not end.

The green beans have rebounded, as well. I can pick a small basketful every other day. A couple of weeks ago I wrote my newspaper column on green beans, because of this rebound. I had intended to write more about them here, but was getting ready to attend a four-day women's retreat and didn't get around to doing it. I have now forgotten what else I had wanted to say about beans. The varieties I have growing right now are pole beans -- Lazy Housewife, Ideal Market, and Blue Lake.

Bumblebee at a bean blossom.

The bumblebees are taking advantage of the bean blooms and make quite a ruckus while working there.

The flower gardens also have come to life, celebrating the change of season with colors that seem exceptionally brilliant.

And one of the apple trees has decided to put on a few blooms.

Nature just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


When we take our meals on the screened in porch, I frequently hear a small “vrooom, vrooom, vrooom” behind me. That is where the hummingbird feeder hangs. The sound (something like a very fast 4-inch helicopter) is of one ruby-throated hummingbird defending its territory from the invasion of another that has taken interest in the feeder.
The hummer sits on the tip of a branch of the nearby plum tree, or sometimes at the much, much higher tip of a branch on a walnut tree and guards the feeder. It rarely stops to drink, but instead expends its energy “protecting” its food source. We’ve tried telling it that the feeder has plenty for all, but to no avail.

This behavior is typical of the unsocial ruby-throated hummingbird (and of other but not all hummingbird species, I presume). Both males and females defend territories, with some supposedly rotating use and defense of feeding sites.

Males and females do not even tolerate each other, except for the few brief moments of mating. The female builds the nest, weaving it together with spider webs, and raises the young on her own, while the male mates with as many females as possible.

Lady in Red Salvia

We usually don’t hang hummingbird feeders, but this year, the heat and drought has seriously reduced the blooms in the garden and wild. Right now, the hummers are fattening up for their migratory trek, a nonstop flight of hundreds of miles to Florida, or Central America, perhaps even South America. So they need some extra sustenance.

The ruby-throat is not the only hummingbird species in Kansas, but it is the one I see, possibly exclusively. Other Kansas species seen every year include the rufous, broad-billed, black-chinned, Anna’s and magnificent. Four rare species that have been seen in the state are Calliope, broad-tailed, Allen’s and Costa’s. And just for good measure, here is a link to a site with several photos of several of these species.

I have attempted to plant flowers near our summer dining area that will attract hummingbirds (as well as butterflies and bees). The flowers they are drinking from now are the annual Lady in Red Salvia, four-o’ clocks, and Madagascar periwinkle. Earlier in the summer they dined on Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) and the bright orange blooms of the dwarf pomegranate growing in a large pot on the front porch.
Red Madagascar Periwinkle

While they prefer red blossoms, I also have seen hummingbirds feeding from the purple blossoms of garden sage, as well as the blossoms of pole beans, long beans and black-eye peas.

Tubular flowers best fit their long, thin beaks, so such things as cardinal flower, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, bee balm, morning glory, columbine, salvia and jewel weed are great food sources. This, of course is not a complete list. When the situation is tough, they will drink from any nectar source they can get their beaks into. I’ve even seen one going after the blooms of rugosa rose. I am not sure what wild flower species provide them with food, perhaps the blue sage now blooming in our small meadow area. Or milkweeds? I can’t think of any red wildflowers here.

Royal Catchfly
Fortunately, hummingbirds do not rely solely on nectar. They also eat insects. Which provides protein.

Hummingbird feeders must be cleaned frequently, to prevent the sugar solution from getting nasty and sickening for the birds. Red food coloring often is added to the solution, but is not necessary and can even be harmful. As long as the feeder is red, the hummers will get the idea.

According to an Audubon Web site, you should continue feeding until you have not seen a hummer at the feeder for several days. As the local population moves on, the migrators from other regions will pass through and use the feeder. They don’t hang around just because food is available. They may be bird brains, but they aren’t stupid.

White Madagascar Periwinkle


Thursday, August 30, 2012


Early this week, the National Weather Service forecast put the rain chance at 20 percent on Friday and Friday night.
Unlike many such instances in the past, the chance has increased during the week (thank you, Isaac). Now it sits at 50 percent Friday, 60 percent Friday night and 60 percent on Saturday. Rain gear will be necessary for camping.
My dilemma? Do I do the planned watering today (which includes cabbages, etc. just planted last week) or trust that sufficient rain will fall over the next two days, when I won't be able to water?
I certainly have more than enough tasks to fill my day without the watering chore.
What would you do?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rain on the Watermelon

Saturday morning I took a walk in the rain.
In my own garden.
After three days of light rains, we measured 1.25 inches. It did not fill the cracks in the ground, but it puddled on the stones, and dripped from the cedar trees, beaded on the watermelons.
Now everything is green again.

The sky has cleared and no rain is in the forecast. But I have faith again. And 2,200 gallons in the rain tanks. Rain.


It is not yet September, and the world is beginning to show its autumn colors.

Some of the blueberry leaves are turning.

Shades of yellow highlight the woods.

Poison ivy adds a scarlet flame to the woods' edges.

The fall garden has been planted. Cauliflower, broccoli, kale, lettuce, cabbage.

Later, when the moon is waning, I will plant carrots, radishes, daikon.
Faith is the thing driving me now. Faith and a little rain.
Large cracks still wound the earth -- an inch of rain is not enough to repair the damage done by this hot drought.
But a little rain has softened the edges. And I believe again.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hail, Yes!

Hail, and Rain!
A little more than half an inch. A lovely, lovely storm. And possibly more to come.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Still Hoping...

Gifts of the land.
I took a deep breath and put the baby brussels sprouts in the ground today. As I planted a gray cloud covered the entire sky, keeping the temperature in the 80s all morning. Even though no rain fell, it was a blessing. The little brussels sprouts did not get scorched on their first day out. It did hit 100 around 4 p.m., but oh well.

After I planted the babies, I watered well, not just the plants, but the whole bed. I went over it several times with a sprinkler head, letting the water soak in. Then I put a nice layer of straw mulch over the whole thing, making it extra thick around the plants, and dampened the straw. Shade cloth over the bed will protect the babies from both the intensity of the sun and cabbage-eating bugs.

I have been in melon heaven for several days now, as both the watermelons and cantaloupes are ripening faster than I can eat them. Nothing better on a hot, hot day, than a cold, cold and juicy and sweet melon.

I also recently harvested grapes. Yes, Grapes! I planted the vines just last year, and I did not intend to let them bear. However, I missed a few of the tiny bunches on one vine, and decided to let them mature. I couldn't help myself. I am glad that I had a taste of this Heavenly Blue Grape. They are indeed heavenly. My husband is suggesting building another trellis for yet another Heavenly Blue vine.

Slight chance for rain tonight and tomorrow, then again on Saturday. We've got to get some sometime.

Monday, July 30, 2012


Seven vultures a sittin' in a tree...
Oh my goodness
Are they a lookin' at me?

I was just beginning to water the strawberries this morning when my husband called out...
"Come look at this dead tree!"
He had been on his way to water the fruit trees and had stopped the truck, before diving down the hill, to holler at me.
"Dead tree?" I wondered. "What dead tree?"
I knew he wouldn't call me if something interesting were not afoot. So I set down the bucket and headed to the driveway.
Oh. THAT dead tree. The tree was such a familiar part of the landscape, I'd forgotten about it. But it had a very picturesque group of vultures sitting in it. Reminded me of a movie, when the hero(ine) is in a dire situation. Or sort of like the haunted forest in "The Wizard of Oz."
An appropriate scene for this desert-like drought we're in.
Unusual though, as we usually see our vultures soaring and diving above us. Casting their shadows on our souls.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Sound of Distant Thunder....

....gets me giddy, excited.
We are going to get some rain!

But it also makes me anxious...
Will it really rain here? Or will the storm split around us again?

The sound of rain falling all around... sigh of relief! Rain.
But how long will it rain? Will it even dampen the ground?

Rain last night... 15 hundredths of an inch. Not much.
Fifty to 75 more gallons in each rain tank. The morning cooler, cloudy, humid.

Whatever... I am taking a vacation to the South Pole tomorrow. ('Cause it's still summer at the North Pole.)

Friday, July 20, 2012


Patience is a virtue.
Especially when it comes to melons.
But it is hard, especially when it comes to melons.
Is it ready yet?
....Now is it ready?
..........How about now?

How do you tell when a watermelon is ripe? When it sounds hollow?
They all sound the same to me.
I usually look for a large "butter yellow" spot where the melon rests on the ground and wait for the tendril on the vine right next to the melon's stem to dry up.
But the yellow spot on this beauty has gotten smaller, and is almost gone. The tendril is finally beginning to dry.

I cut one the other day that had a large yellow spot on the bottom, but the tendril was green. The granddaughters were here and I was hoping to give them a treat. But nooooo... The inside was completely green.

I am sooooo looking forward to these watermelons.
Blacktail Mountain watermelons. They aren't huge melons, but there are quite a few of them. I hope they don't boil in this heat. I keep watering... I keep waiting... I keep watching.

Looking for information on how to tell when Blacktail Mountain melon is ripe. "Look for the yellow spot on the bottom. Wait for the tendril to become completely dry... then wait a few days more."


Patience is a Virtue.
But it's hard,
especially when it comes to waiting for watermelons.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Raindrops Falling on the Laundry

Raindrops on marigolds.
The laundry out on the line is getting wetter by the minute.

Giggle and happy dance.

Raindrops on black eyed pea blossom
That means it is raining. It rained most of the morning and at nearly 2 p.m. may be just about to end. I don't know. Looking at the radar all morning I thought it would be done by noon.

Yay! Giggle. Dancing in the rain.

It has been a light rain and won't amount to much. I will be back at the watering tomorrow, most likely, especially since the high will be at or nearly 100 every day for the next week. But right now, the temperature is 69 degrees. It has not been above 73, so far (although the forecast high is in the mid-90s).

Once the rain stops, the clouds will clear and it will be hot -- and most definitely quite humid -- and the laundry will dry. But what a wonderful vacation from July. Damp and cool for half a day. I felt much more optimistic about a fall garden as I planted broccoli seeds in little pots this morning.

Yes, it can rain in Kansas. One day it will be enough.
Raindrops on melon leaves. Raindrops!